Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Not Just for Colored Girls

The Obsessive Reader will not be going to see the Tyler Perry movie of for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf , not unless somebody force marches me in handcuffs.  The play's author, Ntozake Shange, has given her blessing to the Perry film, but that doesn't mean that I have to spend money on a production by somebody whose original colored girl was Madea.  Films from literature usually drive me to the original text, anyway, and I do strongly recommend the book - or a live performance - to the readers of this blog.  Let the movie - declares the Obsessive Reader - result in increased book sales for a redemptive, disturbing, innovative work of art.

for colored girls was - and is - an extraordinary literary phenomenon, what the New York Times recently called "a feminist war cry of a play," rooted in a time of widespread ferment, when women were asserting their voices in the chorus of discovery and pain expressed by those who were coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s.  Born in New Jersey, raised in St. Louis, educated at Barnard College, from a culturally astute black middle class home, Ntozake Shange found herself at the epicenter of the counterculture when she came to California to complete her Masters degree.  Talented, observant and sensitive, she dove like a fish into the waters of change.  Shange's minglings among musicians, dancers, poets and cultural revolutionaries in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles contributed to the birth in 1974 of her now famous choreopoem. 

What a lot of folks don't realize is how powerfully the feminist and lesbian movements contributed to the creation of Shange's play.   for colored girls was first performed in a lesbian bar (in most accounts it's called "a women's bar").  The Bacchanal on Solano Avenue in Albany, a tiny, upscale city between Berkeley and El Cerrito, California, was considered a "special place" for women patrons, offering poetry readings, visual arts exhibitions and performance art.  In her introduction to the for colored girls book, published in 1975, Shange herself writes:  
for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was first presented at the Bacchanal…With Paula Moss & Elvia Marta who worked with me in Raymond Sawyer’s Afro-American Dance Company & Halifu’s The Spirit of Dance;  Nashira Ntosha, a guitarist and program coordinator at KPOO-FM (one of the few Bay Area radio stations focusing on women’s programming);  Jessica Hagedorn, a poet and reading tour companion; & Joanna Griffin, co-founder of the Bacchanal, publisher of Effie’s Press, and a poet.  We just did it.

At the time for colored girls was being created, California was home to ground-breaking, alternative women's presses challenging mainstream biases.  Shameless Hussy Press founded in 1969 by poet Alta Gerry, published the first edition of  for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.  Lesbian poet Judy Grahn, founder in 1969 of the Women's Press Collective, had a direct influence on or colored girls.  Again, in Shange's own words:
In the summer of 1974 I had begun a series of seven poems, modeled on Judy Grahn’s The Common Woman, which were to explore the realities of seven different kinds of women.
 The Common Woman is one of the most beautiful and enduring works of the time.  Judy Grahn says that she wrote all seven pieces in one night.  Shange wasn't alone in being influenced by this cycle of poems;  Grahn said in the book's preface:

All by themselves they went around the country. Spurred by the enthusiasm of women hungry for realistic pictures, they were reprinted hundreds of thousands of times, were put to music, danced, used to name various women's projects, quoted and then misquoted in a watered-down fashion for use on posters and T-shirts.
Virginia Woolf said, in A Room of One's Own, "a woman writing thinks back through her mothers." If you are thinking about seeing the movie, or contemplating picking up the book, or searching for a live performance, remember that for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf  had among its literary mothers lesbians -  acknowledged by Shange - who helped give a voice to colored girls and common women alike.

1 comment:

Perpetual Rampage said...

I just bought a copy of the play after seeing the movie. During the movie I felt a twinge of something contrived and inauthentic. I can't put my finger on it yet but it had something to do with the narrative context in which the poems were put (which were, in my opinion, disloyal to the true meaning and themes of Shange's work).

I'm dying to see a performance because the words on the page are having a profound impact on me. It is like being seen for the first time, really recognized. I'm starting to understand how receiving recognition in the world, no matter how small or isolated, is the first of many steps on the road to freedom and self-actualization as a person of color in America.